Navigating ambiguity with a surf and a dive


This week I had the privilege of visiting the renowned at Stanford to learn about how they teach creativity and innovation to their graduate students.

The school screamed collaboration, curiosity, and discovery — and while there, a couple members of the teaching faculty and I put these principles into action to make a spontaneous, 2-minute mobile video on one of my favorite questioning frameworks: Surf and Dive.

I learned about this framework from Dr. Julia Sloan at Columbia University, and it’s a sure-fire way to diverge (read: broaden) your thinking, and test assumptions. Check out the video link below and let us know your thoughts!

When failure is part of the rules

A few weeks ago, a woman in one of my workshops raised her hand and asked a very important question: “Are you telling us that it’s okay to fail?”

A group of incredibly smart, focused, and skilled future leaders was confused. No one had ever given them permission to fail before.

I told her what one of my mentors, Randy Nelson told me: life is not about error avoidance, it’s about error recovery.

I wasn’t actually encouraging them to fail, I simply encouraged this group to change their reaction to failure.

Most of us fail inward – meaning, our bodies tense up, we get smaller and we let the world know that we are ashamed.

Improvisers practice what same may see as a silly exercise called the “Failure Bow” – we turn failure from an inward defeat to an outward celebration. This small practice helps us act the way we want to feel.

Seth Godin speaks brilliantly about failure, here in this interview. Some of the highlights:

  • those who fail more often, win – The people who don’t win are the ones that don’t fail at all and get stuck, or the ones that fail so big that they don’t get to play again.
  • What are the risks that you can take that keep you in the game even if you fail?
  •  Following the rules can lead to a fear of initiation and a fear of failure. Where can you work where failing is part of the rules?

The concept of embracing failure is broad and confusing for some – depending on your profession, and your past experience. This concept is also juicy and full of connection to vulnerability, innovation, creativity, you name it.

Simply put…error recovery builds resilience, it provides a new kind of reward…perhaps one that we aren’t teaching or recognizing enough.


How to give yourself permission to be more creative

High on a mountaintop sits the creative genius. Not to be bothered with, talked to, or talked down to. He speaks in short, punctuated sentences, rides a scooter (yes, on a mountaintop) and abstains from yellow food. Who is this person? Surely he must be creative.

If you ask me, the great divide between “the creative person” and the non-creative type is phony.

Anyone can be creative. It’s not a category you fall into, the job you are assigned, the assessment you take. Creativity starts with permission.

To be creative is to give yourself and to give others the permission to explore, to have new ideas and to follow them. 

Creative people are more comfortable with the freedom inside structure than just the structure itself. They are more comfortable exploring, less on logic and rules and more on what could be.

They take risks because they have given themselves permission to. They think broadly, in opposites, in analogies, or in obvious straight-forward methods.

It’s a shift – from a judging to learner mindset, a mechanistic or organismic structure, technical to adaptive problem solving, or whole-brain thinking. But, becoming more creative involves not just a neurological shift but an environmental shift as well.

Peter Sims talks about this in this article, “Ultimately, while basic design and creative methods can be learned much like muscles, and developed and strengthened through practice, this shift in mindset requires a different kind of leadership.”

Helping others become more creative involves giving them permission to fail, to have big ideas, to take risks and to blur the lines between who is deemed creative and who isn’t.



The year of Daniel Pink

Little did he know it, but in January of 2012 famed author Daniel Pink was already applying some of the tools he talks about in his latest book (out today!), “To Sell is Human“.

I’ll explain. It was December of 2011 when I finished reading his earlier work, “A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future” . I was enamored with the material, and overjoyed that his words seemed to validate my career path, and passion.

On a whim I sent Mr. Pink an email. I complimented him, pointed out our mutual connection (Go ‘Cats!), and…well, asked if he had some time to talk. I may have even quoted Oprah?! Silly me, I thought. But, I had nothing to lose.

I was sitting in a quiet cafe on Polk Street in San Francisco when I received his prompt response:

“hi, lindsey. thanks for the note.

i’m happy to talk, but only on the condition you share with me one or two tips for getting better at improvisation. (as it happens, i’m doing some research that’s kinda, sorta on that topic right now.)”

I screamed. There were some odd looks. I didn’t care – to me, Daniel Pink is a rock star and this was the equivalent of a backstage pass.

Almost a year later Daniel Pink finished the project he alluded to and released “To Sell is Human”. It is a fascinating, thought-provoking read that I highly recommend.

Pink devotes an entire chapter to Improvisation and the tools we use as Improvisers to improve communication, presentation and even, authenticity. Just like in “A Whole New Mind”, Pink has validated, supported, and encouraged the use and application of these tools to a broader base and signals the growth of this field for years to come.

Our conversation in January was one of the highlights of my year. Daniel Pink said “Yes, and” to my request to talk and it is something I will never forget.

In December of 2012 I was chosen to be a part of a small group that would serve as a launch team for “To Sell is Human”.

Small actions (to say “Yes, And”, to help make someone else look good, to practice generosity and taking risks) help to create memories and connections that we don’t soon forget.

Here’s to a new year of saying “Yes, And”,  and to being uncertain but taking a risk anyway. You never know where it will lead.

Innovation: No pain, no gain?

Bumper stickers, cubicle walls, and email footnotes are just some of the places you might see clichés such as:

  • no pain, no gain
  • nothing worth having comes easy
  • tough it out, you!

And I wonder, these sayings are either the work of an athletic coach, or… someone who cares about real, sustained change.

Perhaps they are one in the same.

Up and down your organization you will find people with different tolerance levels for pain. They will recognize it somewhere along the scale from an unnecessary evil to a requirement for growth and renewal.

Some say “bring on the change!”, and others hide under their desk. Left under our own devices, how many of us would willingly seek out and go after change if we knew how hard it would be?

Leading through change means recognizing that yes, there will be pain. Instead of ignoring it, we can help navigate others through it by asking “where is this coming from?”, and “why?”.

Two lessons from Improvisation comes to mind when thinking about leading through change: commitment and trusting instincts.

When we embrace change as a practice, we learn to recognize the good pain from the bad pain. Ignoring the bad pain in favor of commitment doesn’t do anyone any favors.  We don’t have to be the “change” hero that results in a broken leg or worse.

But when we see the momentum moving in the right direction, the aches and pains that comes with all things new, can, under the right guidance and mental know-how, remind us that it’s all in the name of, you guessed it… the game.


What’s the drill – September 12: And because of that…

Remember the Story Spine? The fantastic tool we use to apply elements of storytelling to a plethora of organizational situations and cases?

  • Once upon a time …
  • And every day …
  • Until one day..
  • And because of that …
  • And because of that …
  • And because of that…
  • Until finally…
  • And ever since that day ..

Today specifically we can talk about the Story Spine as a means of discussing risk and reward.

Take the phrase, “And because of that…”

Improvisers are taught, and become more comfortable with taking risks. They feel on stage, experientially, what it’s like to get out of their comfort zone. And because of that, they stretch, grow, and so much more.

Sometimes, off-stage, we take a risk (“until one day”) and wait for the reward (“because of that”). We see risk taking as a means to an end. It’s got to be something tangible, right?

“Where is my ‘because of that‘ already?”, we ask. Show me the reward! Let’s flip to the end of the story.

In truth, the other, “because of that’s” might not have been written yet. We often can’t see them coming although we hope they appear. It may take months, years for you to recognize what they are. You might find there are more than 3, perhaps dozens of “because of that” phrases. All we know sometimes is that the risk moves us forward, certainly in learning, and hopefully in tangible results.

If we are taking risks solely in pursuit of the reward we might never be satisfied with our story spine.

The point is that we as organizations and the people who run them have a responsibility to keep the story moving forward. Choosing to take risks and to use the call to action of “until one day” moves us forward, compared to the glacial, steady, predictable pace of “and every day”.


Leadership as Jazz: Becoming an Improvisational Leader

Sometimes articles pass through your news feed that, when you read them, make you nod your head so consistently you fear you’ll give yourself a headache.

If Miles Davis Taught your Company to Improvise

“Nurturing spontaneity, creativity, experimentation, and dynamic synchronization is no longer an optional approach to leadership. It’s the only approach. The current velocity of change demands nothing less. It demands paying attention to the mental models, the cultural beliefs and values, the practices and structures that support improvisation.”

How do we as individuals, leaders and organizations prepare to Improvise? It can be done. In fact, here are 5 tips.

It’s why Improvisers rehearse, warm-up, and spend a lot of time building trust. We learn the structure first, and then find the freedom within the safety we’ve created.

1.  Approach leadership tasks as experiments – Be open to what emerges by suspending a defensive attitude. Improvisers are skilled at withholding judgement – with both our own ideas and the ideas of others.

“An experimental approach favors testing and learning as you go. It means presenting ideas, then observing how others pick up and build on them. This is leadership with a mind-set of discovery”

Being more open and receptive to the ideas of those around you also helps to break up a routine or automatic habits that may be weighing you, and your team down.

2. Expand the vocabulary of yes to overcome the glamour of no – Saying “no” is a habit for many of us, for many different reasons. To use what’s in the room, and accept all offers is to heighten and find the positive in what is already available to us. In improvisation, wishing things were different is truly a useless game.

“Too often, in established cultures, cynicism is a way to attain status, and cynical responses to ideas seem justified because they are more “realistic.” It is much easier to critique than to build. Yet equating cynicism with realism shrinks the imagination.”

3. Everyone gets a chance to solo – Learn the give and take. And, at the same time, if you’re passionate about an idea, do you have the freedom to go solo and experiment beyond your comfort zone?

4. Encourage serious play. Too much control inhibits flow.

5. Cultivate provocative competence: create expansive promises as occasions for stretching out into unfamiliar territory. – Competence versus a learning and growth mindset? Is there a happy medium?

“The need of leadership in a distributed age has never been greater. Instead of imposing competence–a virtual impossibility–leaders provoke it by designing the conditions that nurture strategic improvisation and continuous learning, and thus help their organizations break out of competency traps. Great leaders like Miles Davis are able to see people’s potential, disrupt their habits, and demand that they pay attention in new ways.”

What’s the drill – August 15: Failing on purpose

What’s your focus?

Competence, and being right? Or a focus on always moving forward?

Can you focus on “getting it right”, being okay with failure and moving forward? It may depend what “getting it right” means to you, but I believe you can have your cake and eat it too (and rhyme!).

The truth is, we can still move forward when we don’t get it right, and we can move forward faster, quicker, and hopefully cheaper than when our singular focus is just on being correct. 

No one wants to fail.

But, there are some times when we need failure to keep us moving forward – it is often where our best learning and growth (i.e. innovation) comes from.  We can choose to manage our reaction to failure, to greet it with a smile and use it to our advantage.

We may end up preferring failure to get us closer to where we want to go.

You can build competence by creating a safe place to make mistakes and fail.

Getting it right versus getting it completely wrong may just be in how you view failure.

Yes, and you failed. Keep moving forward.